Here is today’s political pop quiz: What do Edmund Muskie, Ted Kennedy, Gary Hart, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani have in common?
The answer is that all of them were once seen as front-runners for their party’s presidential nomination, and were expected to have an excellent chance of reaching the White House, yet none of them even made it onto a presidential ballot in November.
Kennedy was the heir apparent to his martyred brothers, but the fallout from his mishap at Chappaquiddick kept him from making serious runs in either 1972 or 1976. When he finally challenged Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980, he found that he could not give primary voters a good reason — apart from the Kennedy name — to choose him over a sitting president. Ronald Reagan was more convincing in the general election that followed.
Muskie, a senator from Maine, succeeded Kennedy as the Democratic front-runner in 1972, but his campaign fell apart in the early primaries. A photograph depicting Hart, a middle-aged and very married Colorado senator, on vacation with a young fashion model sitting on his lap was enough to derail his 1988 presidential bid. Two decades later, the Democratic nomination seemed to be Clinton’s for the taking, until the candidacy of Barack Obama gave new meaning to the expression “a triumph of hope over experience.”
Giuliani rode his record as a mob-busting prosecutor into the New York City mayor’s office. His leadership on and in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, not only made him “America’s mayor;” it made him the rare Republican with nationwide popularity who was also a proven vote-getter in the Democratic Northeast. I thought George W. Bush might put Giuliani on the ticket in 2004, both to shore up his own re-election prospects and to establish a powerful candidate for 2008. But Bush stuck with Dick Cheney, and Giuliani proved unable to shake off the political rust that had gathered since he left public office in 2002. His 2008 bid flamed out.
Incumbents are front-runners almost automatically, and they seldom fail to at least get renominated. But when I size up an electoral field that lacks an incumbent, I’m not easily impressed by the early favorites. In fact, the sad history of those first-lap leaders makes me especially skeptical.
So when I look at the Republican field for next year’s presidential campaign, I am not excited by the prospects of those names that have been hanging around since 2008. I think the ultimate nominee is going to be someone who was not among John McCain’s party rivals.
I am keeping my eye on the U.S. ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, who recently announced that he will leave his post on April 30. Huntsman has not said anything yet about whether he will seek a spot on his party’s ticket, and it would be unseemly for him to do so while he still serves in the administration, but his supporters have already started calling potential staff and allies on his behalf. In December, President Obama himself commented, albeit jokingly, on the possibility that Huntsman might become his 2012 opponent, saying with laughter, “I'm sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary.”
Huntsman’s combination of foreign policy knowledge and executive experience as a former governor makes him well-qualified for a presidential run. Some Republican voters, including those in Iowa with its early caucuses, might hold Huntsman’s stint as an Obama appointee against him. He is also likely to lose some votes from conservative Christians based on his support for civil unions for same-sex couples. But Huntsman was able to win the governorship of Utah, which is probably the most conservative state in the country, so it’s not unreasonable to believe he might repeat that feat on a national scale.
If his more centrist tendencies don’t sink him with conservative voters in the primaries, Huntsman could depict himself as a formidable threat to Obama in the critical swing states, including Ohio and Florida, that will decide the general election. As a Mormon, Huntsman will have to battle the same prejudices Mitt Romney faced in 2008, but since Romney’s campaign already cleared some of the landmines from that field, Huntsman will likely have an easier time making his faith a nonissue.
Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota is another former governor to watch. He has been roaming the country, supposedly promoting his autobiography, "Courage to Stand.” Unless there’s something I don’t know about Iowans’ book-buying habits, his focused attention on that state indicates that he’s currently more interested in politics than royalties.
Pawlenty has a fairly conservative record on social issues. As governor, he signed legislation requiring the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in Minnesota’s public schools and named an attorney who had previously worked with pro-life groups as the Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. But coming from a state that Barack Obama won by 10 percentage points in 2008, Pawlenty has also learned how to keep his social views under the radar when they are inconvenient, giving him a decent shot at winning over some independents and moderates in a general election.
Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi is also a possible contender. As a former national party chairman, he has friends all over the Republican spectrum and he projects a good ol' boy persona that will play well in the early primaries. Despite his folksy ways, Barbour has shown himself to be an intelligent and skilled leader, carrying his state through disasters from Katrina to BP.
However, Barbour has already managed to commit a potentially serious faux pas, by speaking favorably about the all-white civil rights era Citizens Councils that opposed integration in the South. Barbour credited the Citizens Council of his hometown, Yazoo City, with ridding the area of the Ku Klux Klan. Anyone old enough to remember that time, or who has read about it, knows that the Citizens Councils were not the good guys in the struggle for freedom, notwithstanding Barbour’s rosy revisionism.
On the other hand, Barack Obama is going to win more than 90 percent of the African-American vote no matter who his GOP opponent is. The only harm Barbour’s remarks can do at the ballot box is to increase minority turnout — a distinct possibility — or to turn off white voters who might otherwise have supported him. My guess is that Barbour has enough time to disavow his remarks and remind everyone that he has had effective working relationships with Mississippi’s minority communities as governor. That should be enough to get him back on track, at least for the Republican primaries.
Though Pawlenty has gotten some attention, most of the airtime thus far has gone to the anticipated repeat offenders from 2008, the people who could not win their party’s nomination in the past but think that this time is different. Former Mass Gov. Romney heads that list, along with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Romney is already talking about his strategy. I don’t think it matters, because Romney’s support of his state’s 2006 health care overhaul will sink his chances with Republican primary voters who detest the federal version that passed last year.
Huckabee has done well in early polls and can drum up considerable support among social conservatives. He has to hope that is enough to get him the nomination, but I doubt it will work in a year in which pocketbook issues of unemployment, taxation and health care, along with foreign affairs, are likely to dominate the discussion. It looks like Huckabee has peaked.
Of course, there’s one more figure from 2008 who is almost certain to reemerge: Sarah Palin. Palin, who quit her job as Alaska governor for punditry and the lecture circuit, is the closest thing the Republicans have to a media star, and she brings the diva-esque drama to play the part. She has encouraged speculation that she will run without appearing to lay much groundwork for a serious bid.
A successful primary campaign requires a well-run organization and perseverance through temporary setbacks. Palin’s strengths lie more in the impromptu. She is quick to take credit whenever she enters a building that doesn’t immediately collapse, but if you follow her out the doorway, you’d better beware of falling masonry. Yet, even if her chances of winning are pretty close to zilch, her presence in the race could complicate life for other candidates, notably Huntsman. He won’t be helped if he has to defend himself against Palin’s attacks while he introduces himself to non-Utah Republicans.
Prepare to be surprised. That's the fun of the hot-stove-league sport of political handicapping. It doesn't usually go the way we expect, but it doesn't often get boring, either.